BooksOfTheMoon

Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

The Beauty of the House is immesurable; its Kindness infinite. So believes Piranesi, who lives in the House – a vast labyrinth of Halls, with innumerable statues in the endless halls and the ocean in the basement. He lives here alone, except for The Other, and and always has, or so he believes. He lives a contented life, until the messages start to appear – there is someone new in the House, and this sets up a chain of events that leads to hidden truths being uncovered and relationships changed forever.

This is a slim volume, but it took me a while to get into it. The world of the House is dense and Clarke does throw you into the middle of it. The novel takes the form of journal entries of the narrator (the Other calls him Piranesi, but he’s not sure that that’s his name). The random capitalisation that the narrator throws in doesn’t help either. It takes a while to get into the flow of it.

But once you do find the rhythm of the book, it’s a joy to read. It’s lyrical, haunting and beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed following the narrator on his personal journey of discovery of both himself, and the world around him. I can imagine that it’s a book that rewards rereading, and I’m definitely going to give it another go before too long.

Clarke certainly isn’t prolific, but a new novel from her is an event that’s worth the wait.

Book details

ISBN: 9781526622433
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children, #1)

By Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 stars

Everyone talks about the kids who go away to magical lands and have adventures. Nobody asks what happens when they come back. Miss West understands though. She was one of those children, back in the day, and now she’s set up a school to help them try to reintegrate back into society, when often they want nothing more than to return to the worlds that spat them out. Nancy is one such girl, returned from the Halls of the Dead, and her parents can’t deal with how she’s changed, so they send her to Miss West’s school. But instead of the sanctuary she was expecting, she finds death and danger.

The Problem of Susan aside, nobody ever wonders about those who are ejected and can’t return to the places they come to think of as their true homes, and what that would do to them. Miss West does know, and she is kind and understanding. She tries to protect them, and prepare them – both for this world, and for what to do if they do get a chance to return.

This is a great book for diversity, with our protagonist making clear early on that she’s asexual (not aromantic), and one of the few close friends that she makes is a trans boy. It’s very much a book about being who you are, and being accepted (or not) for it. Children and teens are still children and teens. Some lash out because they’re hurting, others are just mean. McGuire paints a sympathetic portrait of a young woman who feels like she’s lost everything and wants desperately to get it back.

This is also a nicely standalone book, although it does a good job of worldbuilding, leaving lots of space to tell more stories (and, indeed, there are several more books in the series). A good execution of a great idea.

Book details

Publisher: Tor.com
Year of publication: 2016

The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, #3)

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

I never thought he’d pull it off, but in The System of the World, Neal Stephenson actually manages to craft a satisfying and enjoyable conclusion to the largest, most rambling work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. Daniel Waterhouse had been summoned back to England in the first book by Princess Caroline, who we first meet when she’s a penniless refugee, and is helped out by Eliza. By this time, she’s about to become the Princess of Wales and the future queen of of the United Kingdom. This book tells the story of what Daniel gets up to upon his return.

Stephenson continues to be fascinated by economics, as much of this tale is the battle of wits between Sir Isaac Newton, master of the Royal Mint, and Jack Shaftoe, the most notorious forger in the kingdom. But thrust into that is also the Solomonic gold – an alchemical mystery that Newton is desperate to get his hands on. And this tension between modernity, in the shape of the new economics and technologies that are starting to come into the realm, and the ancient ideas will define the new system of the world that is being forged.

As The Confusion was Jack and Eliza’s book, so this is Daniel’s. The former do appear, but we mostly follow Daniel as he, much to his own bewilderment, grows to become a respected and powerful man, while trying to find out who’s trying to kill natural philosophers with time bombs and also to continue Leibniz and Wilkins’ work on a thinking engine.

To be honest, even after three very big books (the first of which really feels like a [very] extended prologue to the other two, since really not much happened but you needed to read it to be able to understand and enjoy the other two) I’m not sure how well I can describe, or, indeed, understand the themes of the book. Characters are a bit easier. I found Daniel and Jack very annoying in the first book, for different reasons. Over the next two, I’ve come to like and root for both of them, and Jack’s audacious heist against the Tower of London had some great moments in it. He’s grown and matured. The “imp of the perverse” that dogged him so much in the first book has been tamed, to some degree, by age and wisdom. Daniel mostly just wants to be left alone to get on with his research, but he keeps getting caught up in the plans of the great and powerful.

Eliza, by this stage, is widow, a duchess twice over and up to her elbows in matters of finance. She steps in to help finance some of the work that Daniel is involved with, and, indirectly this leads her to cross paths with Jack again, which leads to one of the more surreal epilogues. And yes, of course you didn’t think you were going to get just one epilogue, did you? There are, in fact, five of them, tying up various loose ends.

While pretty readable, the book isn’t free of bloat. While exciting in bits, for example, the heist went on too long and was a bit too complex for my taste. Stephenson certainly doesn’t skimp on his world-building (although I did mostly skim the descriptions of London).

This book finally has something in it to earn the label of speculative fiction that Stephenson claims for the trilogy. To say what would be a spoiler, but it’s a minor element and for the most part the book can be read as pure historical fiction..

So a challenging series, but ultimately rewarding in the end.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099463368
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 2005

Exhalation

By Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 stars

Ted Chiang isn’t a prolific author, but that means that every new story is a big deal. This collects his most recent stories and it’s an astoundingly good collection. I try to avoid hyperbole for the most part, but this is one of the best set of stories that I’ve read in a very long time. Of the nine stories collected, six were either award-nominated or award-winners. That is an astonishing ratio and the stories really live up to it. They’re almost platonic ideals of science fiction: taking a single “what if? and running with it. What if there was a device that effectively made human memory perfect? What if young earth creationism was right after all? What if you could talk to other versions of yourself in parallel universes?

The title story, Exhalation is a discussion of thermodynamics and the ultimate end of the universe through the medium of air-powered sentient robots, one of whom auto-dissects himself in order to find out how his brain works. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a wonderful story about time travel wrapped in a fable told in the style of the Arabian Nights. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest work in the book. It’s a novella about raising an artificial intelligence. The story tells of next generation virtual pets some of whose owners get very attached to them, and keep them running for years, running into decades. In the notes at the end, Chiang notes that humans take constant interaction and 15-20 years before they become mature, why should that be different for AI? It’s a great story, tying the lives of the humans into that of the AIs that they’re raising. There’s a few short pieces as well, usually written for specific things, such as The Great Silence, a piece about the forthcoming extinction of parrots, with a killer last line that choked me right up.

A friend gave me her copy of Chiang’s previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others because she felt that he wasn’t good with characters and characterisation. This is something I fundamentally disagree with (we didn’t quite fall out over it, and I’m glad I was able to give her copy of the book a good home), and this book has some wonderful characters. Ana, the protagonist of The Lifecycle of Software Objects is really interesting in her obsession; Dr Dorothea Morrell, the archaeologist in Omphalos, whose faith is tested; and most complex and interesting of all is Nat from Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, someone who’s trying to leave her past behind her and whose brush with alternate universes help her come to terms with herself.

Chiang’s genius comes with teasing out the big questions of life, and presenting them in a thought-provoking and entertaining manner that will stay with you for a long time after you finish the story. Unreservedly recommended to any lover of literature and student of the human condition.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529014495

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1)

By Arkady Martine

Rating: 4 stars

It took me an embarrassingly long time to really get into this book, but that’s my fault, not the book’s. I was reading it at the same time as Ted Chiang’s truly astonishing Exhalation and I couldn’t stop thinking about that. And the new Becky Chambers novel had just turned up as well, and I was itching to read that too. But I eventually put those out of my mind and focussed on this, and I’m really glad that I gave it the attention that it deserved.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from a small, independent system to the mighty Teizcalaan empire. The problem is that nobody will admit that her predecessor was murdered and that she might be next. All this while keeping her own secrets and trying to protect her home from the ravenous jaws of the empire.

By the end, I really enjoyed this book. It’s not the story I was expecting, and it’s not one that I hear discussed very often. A major theme is the draw of the foreign, the empire next door. Teizcalaan is a cultural giant and all the young people from her station absorb its media and culture. Mahit especially so – it’s what makes her a good ambassador. This cultural imperialism and the seduction of the oh-so-civilised Teizcalaanli draw her like a moth to a flame.

This aspect of empire – the cultural imperialism that extends beyond the territorial borders – is a great thread, in amongst the intrigue and politics of palace life. There’s also a larger looming threat beyond the borders that threatens everyone, Teizcalaan and Lsel alike. That one is mostly kept to the background here, but I assume will come to the fore in the next book.

I really like Mahit as a character here. She’s a fish out of water, trying desperately to fit in while knowing that she can’t, but she’s not naive and when she’s given a chance to stop and think, which isn’t nearly as often as she’d like, she’s sharp as a tack. Her Teizcalaanli cultural liaison, Three Seagrass (the names within the empire are all like this, with a number and a random noun. I found it quite disconcerting to start with, but it just serves to be another reminder that the Teizcalaanli are alien) is also great. She’s clever, with a dry wit and is genuinely trying to help Mahit.

I’m struggling to place the influences on the Teizcalaan empire. The imperial bureaucracy and obsession with poetry and literature suggest a Chinese influence, but some of the names (“Teizcalaan”, for a start) suggest Aztec, as do some of the ceremonies, but that’s not a culture I know very much about.

Either way, there’s a compelling story here, that was a great read. A worthy Hugo-winner.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529001594
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2019

The Calcutta Chromosome

By Amitav Ghosh

Rating: 3 stars

This alt history re-examines the discovery of how malaria is carried and transmitted. It was discovered by Dr Ronald Ross in the 1890s, but this book posits the question of what he he didn’t do it on his own, but was prompted in that direction, by some unknown force?

In the near-ish future, Antar, a worker for the International Water Council, discovers the damaged ID card of a former colleague who was obsessed with Ross and his work, but who disappeared and starts investigating. We spend time with said colleague (L. Murugan), in long flashbacks, as well as some of the people Murugan encounters in that time.

There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book, coming mostly from Murugan, and yet, despite that, it still manages to be confusing and open-ended. It’s very well-written and easy to read, but I had trouble following the layers of the mystery, and I don’t think the end really pulled it together at all. Murugan is eccentric, but quite a likeable character as he powers around Calcutta, scattering people in his wake, trying to solve the mystery.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the top level of the nested structure, with Antar in the “present” added much to the story. I found the lack of closure frustrating, but was kept going all the way through it. Not sure I’d read it again though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848544154
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir

Rating: 4 stars

There’s been some positive buzz around this book on social media which intrigued me, but I was wary that it was the first part of a trilogy, until someone I trust said that it was (mostly) readable as a standalone. I’m glad I did pick it up, as it’s very enjoyable. I especially like the narrative voice of the protagonist, Gideon. She’s fairly young at just eighteen, and something of this immaturity comes across in her voice, in a good way (I laughed much more than I should have done at the “that’s what she said” jokes).

Gideon is an indentured servant of the Ninth House – owing them for her upbringing. She’s been trained as a swordswoman, and when the head of the house, the necromancer Harrowhark, is called to service by the Emperor, she reluctantly follows Harrow as her cavalier. They find themselves along with pairs from the other Houses in a race to unlock the secret of immortality.

There’s something a little And Then There Were None about the way that the groups are taken to an isolated location with a mystery to be unlocked in a race against time, which I enjoyed quite a lot. The necromancer/cavalier pairs from the other houses were distinctive and interesting, from the jovial married couple of the Fifth House to the “terrible teens” of the Fourth to the creepy, sanctimonious Eighth. Maybe the military Second House didn’t get much beyond being uptight military types, but they were probably the exception.

I loved the relationship between Gideon and Harrow, how these two girls who have known and hated each other their entire lives have to start to rely on each other to survive the challenges they’re thrown and how that eventually turns into trust. It’s an old trope, but carried off with aplomb.

The world is classic science fantasy. Although there’s a thin veneer of SF in the form of space travel and genetics, most of the action involves magic and the fights are all sword fights. I’ll handwave it away via Clarke’s Third Law though. There’s enough worldbuilding to keep us interested without drowning us in exposition (although there are more hints in the glossary at the end).

Spoiler
From the moment we find out what Ianthe had to do to achieve Lyctor-hood, we sense that Gideon’s days are numbered. This is a shame, but what a way to go out. There’s scope for her to come back in some form (they never found the body!) and there’s still a number of mysteries around her. As I said above, I enjoyed her narrative voice a lot. I’ll miss her if she’s gone permanently. I mean, I’ll read a book about Harrow, but I’ll be thinking about Gideon.

The epilogue sets up the next book and I’ll be intrigued to see where it goes – it seems to be getting ready to widen the scope an awful lot, from a single isolated mansion to the whole galaxy. I can’t wait to see where the story goes.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250313188
Year of publication: 2020

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

By Natasha Pulley

Rating: 4 stars

In a Victorian London much like our own, Thaniel Steepleton comes home one day to find someone has broken into his home and left a gift for him – a pocket watch. It’s only when that pocket watch saves his life after an explosion at Scotland Yard some months later that Thaniel goes searching for the watchmaker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mori. Around the same time, Grace Carrow is trying to prove the existence of the ether, while simultaneously trying to avoid being married off by her parents. These three lives eventually intertwine in unexpected and life-changing ways.

I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t a plot-driven book. For most of its length, it’s slow and fairly gentle. Spending time mostly with Thaniel and Mori, with Grace not getting nearly as much airtime as she deserves. It speeds up towards the end, in a way that was quite confusing (albeit deliberately so) and there’s a relationship that completely blind-sided me. Looking back, I can see some subtle signs of it building up, but it turns out that if I’ve not had it explicitly signposted, certain sorts of relationship just completely pass me by.

There was a strong focus on Japanese characters (the author spent some time there, as an academic) and the book delicately draws the distinctions between the immigrants and the locals, without ever resorting to crude bigotry from its characters. (Subtle bigotry, on the other hand…) It also shows the balance that immigrants have to strike when they move to a new country between their history and traditions and blending in with their new home and where different people draw that line.

As you would expect, clocks, clockwork and time play a large role. Mori is a genius with clockwork, with his masterpiece being his somewhat adorable mechanical octopus, Katsu (who has a thing for stealing socks). Timing of events, and probability of others are important, and not just in relation to the bomb that nearly kills Thaniel near the start of the book.

So a charming novel, with a good heart, not to mention a very interesting female scientist, who’s bolshy and flawed. I also now totally want a mechanical octopus (even if I’d have to buy a lock for my sock drawer).

Spoiler
I totally shipped Thaniel and Grace, even though their marriage was literally one of convenience, and it was probably that which blindsided me to Thaniel’s blossoming relationship with Mori.

Book details

ISBN: 9781408854310
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Year of publication: 2016

The Best of All Possible Worlds

By Karen Lord

Rating: 5 stars

This is a remarkably sweet and uplifting book for a story that starts with genocide. The planet of Sidira is destroyed, leaving only small groups of survivors. One of these groups is resettled on the planet of Cygnus Beta, a world that prides itself on welcoming all those who seek refuge. A government civil servant, Grace Delarua, is seconded to help the new settlement. When the colony decides to scour the planet looking for those with genetic heritage from their world, to help rebuild their society, Grace is assigned to travel with a group, including Dllenahkh, one of the Sidiri leaders.

There’s not a huge amount of plot to this book, it’s mostly a travelogue through various societies on Cygnus Beta, having minor adventures en route. It’s the characters that shine through. The warmth with which they’re portrayed is delightful, especially given the awful nature of the event that brought them there. The Sidiri are known as an intellectual and thoughtful people, not prone to burst of emotion (I pictured them as slightly more laid back Vulcans) and the dry wit that Dllenahkh shows, and his surprisingly tender romance with Delarua is a pleasure to read.

This also feels very much like a book for our times, showing us an example of how a society should handle those in need of refuge: with grace and open arms. In a world where more and more countries are turning their backs on their fellow peoples, we need to be reminded of the alternative. Where the host encourages those who come to them to develop and grow and become they best they can be, while those who take up that offer in turn grow into their host culture, while maintaining their own traditions.

The focus here is very much on Cygnus Beta, with only minor hints being dropped in about the wider galactic society and the four peoples (including Terrans) who make up humanity as a whole. The world-building is nicely done, and slides neatly into the story.

This isn’t a flashy novel, but it’s one that I found has worked its way into my heart without me really noticing. I cared about the characters and their relationships, which, to me, means the book is a success.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780871684
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2014

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